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The Absence of Other Worlds

by Fred Elphick

It comes as no surprise to most readers of the Writings that Swedenborg made a number of errors, commonly attributed to the infant state of eighteenth century science. And it has been held that these are of no account since the Writings are not a work on science but a revelation. But it has also been held that as Swedenborg had been mistaken in a few matters of fact, so may he have in other areas which at present do not have the support of science. Is there any justification for this view?

First, what can we say of the mistakes which he did make? We should discount his writing "camel" for "elephant"* as a trivial slip caused by the similarity in the correspondence of, and perhaps the classical confusion between, the two animals (AE 1146:2; cf. AR 774:3) Even old forms of the words themselves were very similar (olfalad and olifaunt). But the more substantial errors are in biology and chemistry.

Recall his belief that the plants of the vegetable kingdom are male only;(TCR 585)  the mention of bottles filled with iron filings mixed with powdered sulphur eventually bursting into flame; (TCR 110) and the statement that gopher wood contains sulphur. "Gopher wood is a wood abounding with sulphur, like the fir, and many others of the same kind; on account of the sulphur it is predicated that it signifies lusts, because it easily takes fire." (AC 643; italics added) Here it can be seen that the correspondence does not depend on the scientific accuracy of the statement since this is based on the properties of things and not the things themselves. (Cf. "fiery principle" in wood, AE 1145:2)

Reading through such passages it becomes clear that Swedenborg had a passion for synthesizing natural and spiritual phenomena-for example, the correspondence of lusts with a chemical reaction. Another example is that of smoke catching fire (TCR 504) and likened to the smoke of falsities being ignited by the heated zeal for them. (TCR 159)

It needs hardly to be said that in Swedenborg we have, not a stargazing theologian blindly following the science of his day, but a humble investigator who thought from principle and experience. His objectivity is evident from an early passage in the Economy of the Animal Kingdom:

. . . I found when intently occupied in exploring the secrets of the human body, that as soon as I discovered anything that had not been observed before, I began (seduced probably by self-love) to grow blind to the most acute . . . researches of others, and to originate the whole series of inductive arguments from my particular discovery alone. I therefore laid aside my instruments, and restraining my desire for making observations, determined rather to rely on the researches of others than to trust to my own. (1 Econ. 18)

Investigation of Causes

The thoroughness of his reasoning is typified in the following, as he attempts to account for the generation of evil forms of life in nature:

The question now is whether such things arise out of eggs conveyed to the spot, . . . or whether they originate out of the damps and stenches themselves. The whole experience about the case does not lend itself to the opinion that these noxious animalcules and insects are hatched from eggs carried to the place, or lying in the ground since creation. For worms exist in minute seeds, inside nut shells, in wood, in stones [fossils?] and creep out of leaves. And upon plants and in plants there are lice and grubs which correspond with them. . . . the fact that afterwards, when they have been produced, they are propagated does not disprove their immediate generation. (DLW 342)

This argument was clinched by ". . . the experience, hitherto unknown, that there are also similar things in the hells." (Ibid )

It appears from the foregoing that Swedenborg's only mistake was in thinking that spontaneous generation was the only way to account for the existence of offensive forms of life. He knew that they arose from hell, that they were not created by the Lord and that nature has no power of creation. What he did not know is that such forms do indeed propagate in various ways. This does nothing to affect what was being taught and we may note in passing that some modern theories on the replication of viruses are not unlike abiogenesis. Is any case, some form of this theory of instantaneous creation is certainly referred to in True Christian Religion 78 where it is said that in its primordial state creation came into existence "in a moment" and then developed by successive formations of one thing from another.

The only difference is that in our world such things are created in a moment by God, according to the affections of the angels; whereas in your world they were similarly created in the beginning, but it was provided that they should be renewed perpetually by the propagation of one from another, and that thus creation should be continued . . . (TCR 78; italics added. Cf. 35; DLW 344)

Anticipating a later argument, we might ask here whether the angel who was telling Swedenborg about creation was not mistaken. What reason mold we give for our answer? Returning to the theme, enough has been quoted to characterize the mistakes in the Writings as trivial and understandable in the light of the scientific knowledge of the time. We can remind ourselves that in the fifteenth century the nature of disease was still unknown, that Harvey's circulation of the blood had only begun to win acceptance in 1661; that in the mid-seventeenth century chemical ideas were still based on the four elements of Aristotle and that there still had been no revolution in chemistry as late as 1700.* So what about possible errors in Earths in the Universe Some hint that what was revealed in some way depended on current scientific knowledge is the fact that Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were not named and the planets outside our solar system had to be identified by numbers. But this does not cast doubt on what was known and it is this with which we are concerned.

* Science and Society in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, A. G. Smith, Thames and Hudson, 1972

The Status of the Earths in the Universe

Did Swedenborg make any mistakes when writing about the inhabitants of other planets, particularly those in our own solar system, and if so of what character? First we note what the Writings say about the character of the above-named "little work":

The contents of it were revealed and shown to me in order that it may be known that the heaven of the Lord is immense; that it is all from the human race, and that our Lord is everywhere acknowledged as the God of heaven and earth. (HH 417e)

Depending how literally we take this passage the question is more or less answered; for some, however, there is room for doubt. We only note here the words "revealed and shown."

In the introduction to the section of the work on the earths in the starry heaven (i.e., those outside our own solar system) occur these words:

But I know that those who hitherto have at heart denied heaven and hell, and the life after death, will still persist in confirming themselves against them, and in denying them; for it is easier to make a raven white than to make those believe who have once at heart rejected faith; the reason is, that they always think about such matters from a negative, and not from an affirmative, standpoint. Nevertheless, let those facts that have already been stated, and that yet remain to be stated, concerning angels and spirits, be for those few who are in faith. In order that others also may be led to some degree of acknowledgment, it has been granted me to relate such things as delight and allure the man who is desirous of acquiring knowledge; of this character are the things that shall now be related concerning the earths in the starry heaven. (EU 124; italics added)

That this [leading Swedenborg outside his own globe] has actually been effected, those who are in corporeal sensual things, and who think from them, cannot be induced to believe. The reason is that the corporeal sensual [faculties] cannot conceive of progressions apart from spaces. But, nevertheless those who . . . think interiorly in themselves, may be induced to believe and comprehend it. . . . Those things, therefore, that follow, concerning the earths in the starry heaven, are for the use of the latter, and not for the former, unless they are of such a character as to suffer themselves to be instructed. (EU 127)

The Question of Identity

We can assume that among the things which "delight and allure the man who is desirous of acquiring knowledge" and who in some measure can think interiorly, are the details of how, in a universe of stupendous size, Swedenborg was able to locate and speak with those who lived light years away when in the world. Yet it is just his ability to identify correctly spirits and angels from other planets on which doubt has been cast. But note that to lead a spirit, in this case*Swedenborg, outside his own globe by changes of state is "in the power of the Lord alone." (Ibid) The argument is that neither he nor the angels may have had the requisite scientific knowledge to distinguish between one planet and another. Thus, the argument runs, although the substance of what is taught is true-that the universe was created for man, a heaven of angels-the details of which planets spirits came front may be mistaken; just as Swedenborg was, for example, mistaken about the length of the Jovian day.(See footnote to SD 583 )

But the argument has no foundation, either in the Writings or in science. Identification is not based on scientific knowledge but on the perception of state and character, as is amply borne out in the passages below.

Recall that the spiritual world is organic-that is, highly organized. The existence of the whole universe depends on the distinct arrangement of all particulars. (TCR 678) Also, everything in the spiritual world needs something ultimate in which to continually produce something. (AC 6077

Now what does our solar system (and it is here that the question of identity begins to bite) look like in the spiritual world? Our sun does not appear at all but is only remembered from having been seen in the world; nevertheless it remains in the perception as "an exceedingly dark something." (AC 7171) The number continues: "The planets which are within the system of this sun appear according to a fixed situation in respect to the sun." Then are given the positions of the planets from Mercury to Saturn, the Moon and the satellites being placed relatively to their own planets. "Such is the situation of these planets in the ideas of spirits and angels." (ibid)

Because this situation is "in the ideas of spirits and angels" it may be thought that this is just some vague appearance which it would be easy to misinterpret. Yet, if this were so, what meaning would the references to fixed situation and relative positions have? The fact that these were not the physical planets which were seen does not mean they were floating around in meaningless chaos. Indeed we may surmise that the reason Swedenborg did not mention this earth in the passage was that he was standing on it. The passage closes with the statement that spirits are associated with their own planet in the other world, so one would not expect any great problem in identifying to which one they belonged. (Cf. EU 127)

It leads to all kinds of confusion when we think of identifying a man from another planet by first identifying the planet. In most if not all cases Swedenborg met the spirits and noted their unique character or genius before he identified their place of natural birth. Again, it is their organic relationship in the grand man which identifies. For example, "There are spirits, of whose birthplace, by the Lord's Divine mercy, we shall speak elsewhere, who have relation to the internal memory." (AC 2491)

Another line of approach is to say that use is what determines individuality and hence identity. When considering the creation of the planets, would it not be of order that first would come the potential use determining the character of a people and then the creation of a planet adapted to support the kind of life foreseen? We often speak, as do the Writings, (E.g. SD 1670) according to the appearance; that it is were who are adapted to life on this planet, as if the Lord absentmindedly (if we may so phrase it) created a planet and then had to adapt us to it. This would seem contrary to common sense.

But further than this, the planets as they appear in the other world were also created by the Lord for the sake of use and they rest, moreover, on the ultimate orbs in this world as their foundations. It is because of this intimate connection of man and planet that either can exist at all, and this also has a bearing on identity.

The third heaven is constituted of angels from all the planets "in closest conjunction" (AC 6701) and can communicate with all in the universe. (AC 9438) No doubt this is how those who had lived on an earth far removed from our solar system knew about the men of the Most Ancient Church. (AC 10160 (this is omitted in EU))  The remarkable accuracy of the memory also is an important factor in "finding the way" in the other world. Recall the occasion when Swedenborg was able to identify the exact street in a city where had lived a man from this earth, by leading him in the spirit by means of his (Swedenborg's) own memory. (AC 2485; SD 1933)

In the face of a great deal of material in the Writings which tends to confirm the view that there are no substantial errors of identity in the Earths in the Universe, there are one or two passages which make it plain that Swedenborg did have difficulty in identifying certain spirits.(SD 1670 ff) The existence of this uncertainty of Swedenborg's is not a serious problem since by the time the parallel passages were written in the Arcana it had been resolved-providing yet another detailed instance of how Swedenborg received everything in the understanding, by comparing, doubting and concluding. But it is surely no coincidence that the very spirits he had difficulty in identifying in the above passages were unwilling to admit they had possessed a body and indeed regarded the very thought with aversion. (SD 1668) For it is said that all spirits are known from their situation in respect to the human body (AC 10379) and thus their aversion for the body may have in some way represented itself as anonymity. "I was told afterwards that they were from a certain earth in the universe [the starry heaven]; but I was not informed where that earth was." (AC 10311; EU 148) Their spiritual location is described. (EU 156)

It is significant that in the treatment of the earths in the starry heaven, the subsidiary theme seems to direct the attention to the problem of how the information in the Earths in the Universe was made available. This would seem pointless if much of it was incorrect in anything but trivial detail. Recall all the careful descriptions of the changes of state undergone in order to communicate with those of other planets. And what was the basis, for example, of the many comparisons made of the size of our sun and those of other systems? (AC 9697, 10162, 10771) The sun of the fifth earth (fourth in the Earths in the Universe) is said to be a fourth part of the size of ours, the year 200 days and the day fifteen hours compared with the time of the days on earth.

"These things the angels related from a comparison made with such things on our earth, which they perceived in me, or in my memory. They drew these conclusions by means of angelic ideas, whereby the measure of spaces and of times is at once known in the right proportion relatively to spaces and times elsewhere. Angelic ideas, which are spiritual, immensely exceed in such things human ideas, which are natural." (AC 10771; italics added)

Put simply, angels are exceedingly good at accurate comparisons. Their role seems to be to share in the investigations which went on in preparation for the writing of the Earths in the Universe. They seem, for example, to assist in the identification of the birthplace of spirits. ". . . it was permitted the angels to learn whence they were . . ." (AC 10589; italics added) and there was "open instruction from heaven whence they were. . . ." (Ibid) They are not presented as all-knowing beings but as ones who learned with Swedenborg. It seems hardly likely that for this reason they were particularly prone to error. From whence were they instructed?

What seems plain in all the foregoing passages is the mathematical order and precision in the arrangement of the spiritual universe, the stunning capacity for communication and the fact that all this was being "revealed and shown" by the Lord through heaven.

What, then, are we going to make of the fact that no sign of life has yet been discovered in our solar system? Are we to make ourselves look as ridiculous as those who believe that the earth is flat in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Did not Luther call Copernicus a fool for trying to prove that the earth moves and goes round the sun when yet Joshua bid the sun stand still and not the earth? We certainly would look silly if we had conclusive evidence that there is no life in our solar system, but this is not the position in which we find ourselves; nor does it seem at all likely that we will do so in the foreseeable future. What do we know about our neighbors in space? We have the results of many observations which, indeed, would fill volumes, but in terms of hard facts there is very little information and that in very general terms.

A recent issue of Scientific American (September, 1975), which is devoted to the solar system, shows something of the way science proceeds. In order to try to explain their observations, scientists construct theoretical "models" into which the known facts fit. Thus when a statement is made, such as, "The atmosphere of Venus traps sunlight to maintain a temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit," this is made according to a model of the atmosphere based on limited observations, the only direct ones being made by probes coming down by parachute through the atmosphere of Venus. It is not the purpose here to argue about the accuracy of the figure but to show what a scientist may mean when he uses such expressions as "It is now known . . ." and what me are referring to as hard facts.

The record books tell us that the highest recorded temperature endured by humans is 400-500 degrees Fahrenheit according to experiments by the U.S. Air Force in 1960. As it stands, this is not what we should be inclined to call a hard fact. We should want to know the conditions of the experiment, how long the temperatures were endured and so on. Similarly, with the temperature of Venus, we should want to know exactly what is being claimed. If someone gave us a figure for the temperature of the earth would we not want to know where the measurement was taken, whether it was midday on the equator or midnight in the Himalayas-on the edge of a volcano or the middle of a fjord?

Thus if we ask whether a certain statement about Venus is true, the reply may be, "It is true in the sense that it agrees with the provisionally accepted model of what Venus must be like." In the face of new information, models have to be revised and it is interesting to see, both in the history of science as a whole and in space exploration in particular, how often this happens. Take as an example the volcano Olympus Mons (formerly Nix Olympica) which is more than 300 miles across the base, 15 miles high and has a main crater 40 miles in diameter. This is large, especially for a planet like Mars which is only one tenth of the mass of the Earth.

Now the American space program designed to probe Mars was certainly one of the most sophisticated and successful of its kind. Yet none of the pictures returned by the first three Mariners showed any evidence of volcanic activity! This led to a model of Mars as a dead planet (tectonically inactive). This view had to be "drastically revised" (which means it was dead wrong) in the light of the photographs sent back by Mariner 9 which revealed among other things, four large volcanic mountains larger than any such features on earth, one of which was the giant Olympus Mons. (Scientific American, January, 1973)

The explanation of this (hard fact) was simple-they had looked at the wrong side. The first Mariners had sent back pictures of the same part of Mars each time and it was assumed that the hidden side was the same as the visible one. It was not. It is interesting to note how often the scientific models of the planets have had to be "drastically revised." There is no reason to think that this will stop or even slow down for a great many years yet. But perhaps it has slowed down in the case of the moon. Our satellite has only 6% of the earth's density, while its mass is unusually large (1/80 of that of the earth) by comparison with the satellites of other planets which rarely exceed one thousandth part of the parent body. The more we find out about it, the more mysterious does it become; for example, when it is struck by a spent space craft it continues to reverberate for about an hour.

There is no sign of life on the surface and virtually no atmosphere so we are left with the following possibilities:

  • There is life beneath the surface.
  • There has been life in the past but there is no longer.
  • The Earths in the Universe is not intended to be taken literally. (See Dr. Wilson van Dusen's article in New Church Magazine, June-September 1975. which puts forward the view that the Earths in the Universe is an allegory.)
  • Swedenborg mis-identified the birthplace of the spirits with whom he spoke. (See "The Names of the Planets," Rev. Kurt Nemitz, June-September issue, New Church Magazine.)

This list by no means exhausts the theories which have been put forward but is fairly representative of the main approaches. We have argued at some length against the last possibility and by implication, the suggestion that the Earths in the Universe is not to be taken literally. The following number from Earths in the Universe does not strike one as allegorical:

It is known to spirits and angels, that there are inhabitants even in the Moon, and likewise in the moons or satellites which are about Jupiter and the earth Saturn. Even those who have not seen spirits who are from them, and spoken with them, entertain no doubt that there are human beings upon them, for they, too, are earths, and where there is an earth, there is man; for man is the end for the sake of which an earth exists, and nothing has been made by the Supreme Creator without an end . . . (EU 112)

A key fact about the findings of science is that they relate to observations of the universe and not about the universe itself. Thus, if a thing has not been observed (like Olympus Mons) there is a strong tendency to think that it does not exist.

Finally, let us bear in mind that planets are designed for the support of unique races of men with very different requirements from our own. Conditions which may appear harsh and unfriendly may not be so in real terms.

"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou are mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8:3, 4)



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Absent Other Worlds

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